Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Cooper has turned Lightning around


The first question is not about his overachieving swarm of gnats, those guys who believed when everyone doubted.

The first question is not even about the terrific goaltending, or about the missing star, or about how the team has claimed overtime as its own.

With Jon Cooper, magic man, the first question is simple:

What are you doing here?

He was going to be the next Perry Mason, not the next Scotty Bowman. He was going to put on his suit, grab his briefcase and go to court. After all, some guys argue before the bench, and some guys stand behind it. Some guys try to be the next Torts, and some guys just file them.

This always has been one of the more delightful slices of the story of Cooper. He was a lawyer back in Lansing, Mich., a defender who argued "six or seven" cases. That's about as far away from the normal selection pool of NHL coaches as anyone could imagine. He wasn't always the guy in charge of Team Houdini.

A decade later, Cooper has found a home. These days, he is the head coach of the surprising Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that will not slow down and will not go away. Glance up and down the roster — Marty and the Prove-Its — and you will not be awed by most of the resumes. And yet it wins.

Thirty-five games into the season, and the Lightning is tied for second in its division and tied for third in its conference. It is 8-3 in overtime, including 5-1 in shootouts. It is 9-3-3 in one-goal games. Without Steven Stamkos, it is 9-6-3. Overall, it already has won more games this year (21) than last year (18).

And the question persists.

What are they doing here?

You remember last year, don't you? The Lightning was the third-worst team in hockey, and most onlookers seemed to believe it was headed toward a similar kind of season this year. The consensus was that, yeah, Steve Yzerman has a plan, but it was going to take a while.

"I like the way our team plays," said Yzerman, the team's general manager. "I like the system he's put in place. I think our players are playing hard. We've battled through some injuries and managed to stay afloat. It's been a difficult job for a coach, and he's handled it well.

"I think one of his strengths, as it was in (AHL) Syracuse and Norfolk, was to relate to the players. I know the kids who played for him in the minors loved playing for him. He finds a way to get to them and push them and challenge them and make them better players."

As a result, the Lightning has transformed into a wonderfully stubborn bunch with a knack for stealing games at the end of the night. The closer the game is to the finish, the better these guys have been.

Yes, this says great things about the players themselves. But the mind-set involved also says wonderful things about Cooper. He has these guys believing that when the game is up in the air, they will come down with it. These days, close belongs to the Lightning.

"It's something that is a mind-set you build in your players," Cooper, 46, said. "You can't sit and say, 'Oh, my gosh. We're down a goal or two. It's over.' The mind-set is, 'Okay, the goal is scored. Let's make sure we get the next one.' You have to turn the page. When the game is on the line, you have to have poise under pressure. You have to slow your heartbeat down. You have to calm yourself and concentrate on what's at hand.

"If you want to be in the conversation to make the playoffs, you have to win one-goal games. You have to find a way. You get to the third period, and you're down a goal, or up a goal, or it's tied. You've shortened the game. Do you have the will to win this hockey game? Those are the points that separate playoff teams from nonplayoff teams."

If you want to know the truth, this success started over the last 13 games of last season, when Cooper took over from Guy Boucher. Cooper only won five of those games, but he says that experience was invaluable for him.

Even then, Cooper says he was filled with "false hope" that things would turn around immediately. Cooper is like that. The guy expects success.

"He's extremely passionate about winning," said defenseman Mark Barberio, who played for Cooper in Syracuse and Norfolk. "I haven't seen that kind of passion from many coaches. It just rubs off on the guys. He walks that fine line between being a players' coach and still getting respect."

For a hockey coach, the mental part of handling the clubhouse is so important. Sure, systems count, and Cooper deserves a lot of credit for convincing his stars to play on both ends of the ice. Boucher seemed to enjoy living outside of the box, and eventually, that seemed to be a detriment to his team. Cooper's system seems to be a better fit.

Along the way, Cooper convinced a locker room filled with youngsters that they belong, that success is there for the taking.

"We have a lot of great people in the room," he said. "We don't have guys whose first names start with 'me.' That's big. We have a lot of guys who play with passion, a lot of guys who really want to win."

For an ex-lawyer, these are the trials that matter these days. Somehow, you have to give your team a way to win the closing arguments.

The jobs aren't that different, really.

Either way, you have to help your team win its appeal.

Cooper has turned Lightning around 12/19/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013 11:08pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays morning after: A lot that went into a marathon win


    Rays manager Kevin Cash had a simple strategy when Fox Sports Sun's Alex Corddry asked him how the team would move on from Sunday's marathon win and get ready to face the Rangers tonight in Texas:

    Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays celebrates as teammate Michael Martinez slides safely into home plate to score a run against the Minnesota Twins during the 14th inning.
  2. Rays journal: Erasmo Ramirez ready to start a day after closing game

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — RHP Erasmo Ramirez was on the mound to finish Sunday's 15-inning marathon win over the Twins and will start tonight's game against the Rangers.

    The Rays’ Erasmo Ramirez throws 12 pitches in the 15th inning against the Twins to earn the save then says after the game that he’s ready to make his scheduled start against the Rangers: “My arm feels good.”
  3. Rays exhausted but happy after 15-inning win over Twins (w/video)

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — Before the Rays eventually won Sunday's 6½-hour, 15-inning marathon against the Twins 8-6, they did plenty to lose it. And we need to get that out of the way first.

    The Rays’ Evan Longoria enjoys a laugh after scoring, barely, to tie it in the ninth on Steven Souza Jr.’s two-out single.
  4. Tom Jones' Two Cents: ABC's Indy 500 coverage is stellar again

    TV and Radio

    Times columnist Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a weekend of televised sports.

    Best coverage

    Takuma Sato left, celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 as Helio Castroneves is a little late passing him. ABC’s coverage of the race is stellar throughout, with plenty of extras but no fake drama.
  5. Takuma Sato surprise winner of wreck-filled Indy 500

    Auto racing

    INDIANAPOLIS — Takuma Sato, a journeyman driver, became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday when he held off three-time champion Helio Castroneves in a 230-mph wheel-rubbing duel to the finish.

    Scott Dixon’s car goes over the top of Jay Howard, soaring so high that Helio Castroneves drove under it while it was airborne. Stunningly, there were no serious injuries.